DEERFIELD, Ill.—To the casual observer, Joakim Noah is a lot of things, many of them positive—unless you’re a fan of an opposing team.
The Bulls’ All-Star center has a unique style of play—a playmaking big man, elite rebounder and the versatile anchor of one of the best defenses in the NBA—to match his one-of-a-kind personality. Born to parents with Cameroonian and Swedish backgrounds, respectively, and raised in both France and New York City, Noah is a 7-foot ball of energy, prone to exhorting his teammates on the court and supplying the media with entertaining quotes after victories, but often bland, sullen responses following losses, a reflection of his competitive spirit.
That’s the side of Noah most frequently revealed, a portrait of a player who marches to his own drummer. But at 28 years old, entering his seventh professional season, no matter what his public persona is, Noah has matured on and off the court, and with age, has focused his passions away from the game on philanthropy, though he doesn’t seek attention for it.
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Exactly a week before the Bulls opened training camp, Noah spent a day at St. Sabina Church on Chicago’s South Side for the second annual PEACE Tournament, an event pitting four local gangs in basketball games against each other in an effort to stem the tide of violence in the community, around 79th Street and Racine Avenue in the Auburn-Gresham neighborhood.
Joined by the likes of Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas, another key organizer, Bulls assistant general manager Randy Brown, Bulls assistant coach Ed Pinckney, former teammates Ben Gordon and Jannero Pargo of the Charlotte Bobcats, Detroit Pistons guard Will Bynum, retired players Theo Ratliff and Antoine Walker, NBA referees Danny Crawford, James Capers and Marc Davis, and Bulls teammate Derrick Rose—it should be noted that all of the above, except for Gordon, Ratliff and Pinckney, are Chicago natives—Noah and the others not only coached the players, but talked to them trying to make positive changes in their lives and more importantly, listened to their concerns.
“I met this guy, Cobe Williams, from ‘The Interrupters’ [an award-winning documentary about a Chicago group, of which Williams is apart of, that uses conflict-resolution tactics and relationships with members of the community to stop, or interrupt, violent confrontation] and I’ve been working with him. He has a great relationship with Father [Michael] Pfleger [the priest of St. Sabina’s neighborhood parish and a renowned social activist], so he introduced me to him,” Noah recently explained to CSNChicago.com after a Bulls’ training-camp practice at the Berto Center. “They all came up with the idea of the Peace Tournament, just having the gangs playing against each other, and afterwards, talk to them and try to find solutions, try to bring peace in the community.
“I think that it’s a good concept. You always have to try to find ways to do more, but I think that it’s a good start. Just try to build relationships. The hard thing about it is when you really look at the numbers, the shootings are still going on. It’s hard, but I think that it just shows that we’re invested and we care, and now, we just have to try and find the next step,” the center, who switched his representation to agent Bill Duffy last season, went on to say. “I think that some kids are going to respond well to it and some kids aren’t. It’s just the name of the business, but if you can just touch one person and you can keep them out of harm’s way, I think that’s a blessing because the thing is, it’s hard and it’s complicated, in the sense that, I don’t know what the right answer is.”
“I can’t come and tell you, ‘Okay, this is what we’re going to do and this is how we’re going to change everything.’ Slowly, but surely, you’re trying to change the mindset, bring some positivity into the community, show them that we care and get involved into building programs and doing things that matter, and I hope that we can all come together as a community, as not just, ‘this community,’ or West Side or South Side, or rich or poor, or black, white. I think that we’ve got to all come together in trying to find solutions.”
Noah appreciates the fact that a one-day event, no matter how star-studded the list of participants is, isn’t something that will singlehandedly end the violence in the community and throughout Chicago, which is why he periodically stops in at St. Sabina and other locations, such as the Major Adams Community Center on the West Side, to demonstrate his devotion to his adopted city. Although an NBA schedule doesn’t make it easy, he does his best to show his interest in making a difference, even beyond basketball.
“To me, it’s all about youth empowerment, teaching kids the importance of knowing how to express yourself. That’s what my foundation’s about. Obviously the art therapy’s a big part of the foundation with my mother [artist Cecilia Rodhe], but we’re trying to do as much as possible. We’ve been working with Cobe and trying to put in learning products, express yourself in non-violent ways,” said Noah, who added that tutoring programs for students would be among the offerings in the future through his Noah’s Arc Foundation. “Just trying to do more and trying to add to it, doing our own Peace Tournaments that might be less publicized. But do it our way, adding people from the community and letting them bring their kids from different communities, having different interactions with people who might not be from your neighborhood and how that goes.
“Overall, just trying to do as much positive as we can and I think that helps me for my season. It definitely puts everything in perspective for me. My message is it’s always more than just basketball.”
Whether or not his understanding that bigger problems in the world exist than the breakdown of a defensive possession—something Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau might prefer he didn’t consider until next June—Noah will assuredly bring his trademark intensity to the floor, starting with Saturday’s preseason opener in Indianapolis against the rival Pacers. But heading into the upcoming season, there will be one significant change with the center on the court: CSNChicago.com learned—and Noah confirmed after Friday's practice—that he will be wearing adidas moving forward.
After beginning his career by wearing French apparel maker Le Coq Sportif—the brand worn by his father, former tennis star Yannick Noah, during his own athletic career—nickname “The Rooster,” for its prominent logo, Noah will now join teammates Taj Gibson, Jimmy Butler, Marquis Teague, rookies Tony Snell and Erik Murphy, and of course, Rose, as an adidas endorser.
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“I’m really, really excited. I think it’s a great opportunity. Just to be with a global brand like that means so much. I’ve known a lot of those guys since I was a kid, playing at ABCD camp. Playing with the face of the brand in Derrick, that’s so cool to me, just to be a part of that. I think we’re going to be a lot of great things for the kids, as well, being in Chicago. I think they’re very invested in doing good things for the youth here. Just to be a part of such a power brand means a lot,” explained Noah, who said he will wear the adidas “Crazyquick” model to start the season. “To me, I just wanted to be with a company that I know has great technology, a great investment in getting the best product out there for their athletes. Just to be a part of that is huge. With the World Cup coming up, hopefully they can help us get a few tickets and check out a few games during the World Cup. That’s not one of the major reasons why I went [with adidas], but I’m a big soccer fan.”
All jokes aside, if the technology Noah referred to in the sneakers helps combat the re-occurring case of plantar fasciitis he battled last season, then an aspect of basketball news that only a faction of fans typically care about becomes of more importance. Regardless, being associated with a brand with an international foothold like adidas, given Noah’s background and charisma, means that even more people will get a chance to experience the unique player and person Chicago has seen blossom over the years.